Tuesday, March 5, 2024
AnalysisChicago CubsMLBNational LeagueNL Central

Just How Good Is Albert Almora Jr.’s Defense?

Photo Credit: Baseball Savant

Going into the 2020 season, Albert Almora Jr.’s role has been mired in both controversy and intrigue. In arbitration, Almora received a $1.575M contract, one that’s very fair to his overall value.

But, it’s clear that some aspects of his value are on a much higher pedestal than others. To be the most simplistic, his defense is far more valuable to the Cubs than his offense. However, the question remains about why and how his defense is so valuable to the team.

To start, a general formula to evaluate his defense as a whole should be established. Mixing the smarts of both Tom Tango and Mike Sutton, a very accurate formula can be used to judge defense: OAA * 0.8 + ARM. OAA measures the range of the defender, with the 0.8 used to convert it from outs to runs. ARM is self-explanatory, as it’s used to measure the amount of runs a player contributes with their outfield arm. Since it’s already in a runs scale, a conversion isn’t needed. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be referring to this formula as a player’s fielding runs.

Since 2017, Almora ranks highly in this stat with 11.7 fielding runs to his name. Taking this a step further, the output per season can be measured by dividing his innings played defensively, in this sample, by the number of seasons. When rounding to the nearest third of an inning, Almora’s innings played defensively per season is 777.3333. Using this, while rounding to the nearest tenth, Almora averages approximately 3.9 fielding runs per season. That’s quite adequate.

For a deeper reference point, the league average outfield fielding runs can be calculated in the same time span. To do this, Baseball Savant’s leaderboards and FanGraphs’s leaderboards come in handy. The formula is the same, so the league average fielding runs since 2017 comes out to be -1.6. However, when finding the amount per year, the mean outfield innings played in that sample must be used, which rounds up to 130,169.3333 using the nearest third inning. Using all of this, the mean fielding runs per season is -0.5. So, Almora has approximately 4.4 fielding runs higher than the league average. That’s quite satisfactory.

If your head’s still on, it’s possible to dive even deeper into this research. Given Baseball Savant’s custom leaderboards, it’s possible to find factors that most highly correlate to OAA using the coefficient of determination: r squared. The higher the r squared, the more correlated the stats are. I measured the r squared for six quantifiable factors: reaction, burst, route, feet vs average, feet covered, and sprint speed with players with a 250 PA minimum since 2017. The most correlated factors, in order, were burst (0.41), feet covered (0.4), feet vs average (0.39), sprint speed (0.23), reaction (0.10), and route (0.01). Feet covered and feet vs average fall under outfield jump, while burst, reaction, and route are components of jump.

To dive deeper, I’ll use Almora’s yearly mean since 2017 and compare them with a sample of outfielders in 2019 who have a minimum of 250 PA. While 2019 won’t be extremely accurate, it helps to acquire different percentiles to establish an adequate estimate. I’ll also remove Almora’s 2019 season from this sample since he meets the minimum and, as intriguing as two Almoras defensively sounds, it isn’t accurate.

Let’s start with the top three: burst, feet covered, and feet vs average. With the first, his yearly mean comes out to 0.4, which ranks in the 82nd percentile. With feet covered, it comes out to 35.2, with ranks in the 90th percentile. And, finally, his yearly mean in feet vs average is 0.9, which ranks in the 88th percentile.

With the next two, sprint speed and reaction, Almora also ranks highly. For the former, Almora runs 28.0 feet per second in his yearly mean. When looking at this percentile only, I’ll use a sample that includes every position with a minimum of 250 PA. So, using this, Almora ranks in the 73rd percentile in sprint speed. For the latter, his yearly mean is 0.7, which ranks in the 80th percentile.

While route almost isn’t correlated to OAA at all, it’s the only stat where Almora doesn’t perform well out of the aforementioned stats. His yearly mean is -0.2, which ranks in the 39th percentile. However, there’s evidence that a poor route may be better for OAA. This comes especially due to Patrick Bowe, whose research inspired this article. A graph of its correlation to reaction, since 2017, is below.chart-3.pngFor this graph, reaction is on the y-axis while route is on the x-axis. They’re also the most correlated out of any stats on this list, with an r squared of 0.55. As the trendline shows, the lower the route, the higher the reaction. Since reaction is 10 times more correlated to OAA than route, having a poor route can lead to a better OAA. So, having a poor route actually benefits Almora.

Given his very poor offense, a role as a starter for Almora would likely be temporary at best. Since 2017, he’s posted a .274/.311/.397 slash line, 85 wRC+, .302 wOBA, .289 xwOBA, and -5.8 wRAA/150 games. However, his defense could absolutely find him a role as a defensive backup and provide good value to the Cubs.

His yearly mean in fielding runs trails only Jason Heyward, who’s at 8.3, when comparing him to outfielders on the roster since 2017. However, given Heyward’s combination of both upside and pedigree, he’ll likely find a consistent starting role. This gives Almora the dominant role of a defensive substitution on the bench.

Steven Souza Jr. can give Almora some competition, however. While his yearly mean in fielding runs since 2016 is 1.9, he did battle injuries in 2018 and missed the entire 2019 season. Given his oft-injured status in the former season, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of his fielding stats that year. His ARM faced a career-low that season, at -3.7, which is 2.9 lower than his previous low. His OAA was one, which was another low despite being above average.

When looking at his fielding runs from 2016 to 2017, his yearly mean improves to 3.6. His bat also has the upside of being average to above given his hitting from 2016-2018. In that time span, he posted a .238/.326/.423 slash line, 104 wRC+, .325 wOBA, .337 xwOBA, and 3.1 wRAA/150. So, while his fielding runs have upside lower than Almora’s, his role could be larger. But, Almora’s role and upside as the dominant defensive substitution are very likely to be secured.

It’s very clear that Almora’s value likely won’t be very high. He never will be a player that can secure a consistent starting role, but his role with the Cubs still has value. And, given how he performs in factors correlated to OAA as well as fielding runs itself, he does perform in his role well. He also has the upside to continue doing it beyond the 2020 season.

OAA, burst, feet covered, feet vs average, sprint speed, reaction, route, and xwOBA are found on Baseball Savant.

ARM, innings played, PA, slash line, wRC+, wOBA, and wRAA are found on FanGraphs.

Steven Pappas

Hello! My name is Steven Pappas, and I'm a high school junior. I love to analyze and write about baseball data as a huge Chicago Cubs fan and lifelong follower of the sport. I use large databases such as Baseball Savant, basic coding knowledge in RStudio, and my inquisitive mindset to always scour the infinite data available. I really enjoy watching and following basketball and am a Chicago Bulls fan, actively going to their games at the United Center. I love the study of filmmaking, and it's a passion that I've begun to explore as a career opportunity. My favorite works come from the minds of Stanley Kubrick, Yorgos Lanthimos, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Coen brothers, and Wes Anderson. As a deft and passionate writer, I use my proficiency to create works from baseball data, for films, and my ideas in the form of short stories and little nuggets. I'm also a libertarian socialist in training and an active Greek Orthodox Christian.